Hurrah! Fifty years ago today, the Apollo 11 mission arrived in orbit around the Moon.

It wasn’t the first NASA mission to reach the Moon. The first crewed lunar orbits were completed by Frank Borman, William Anders and James Lovell Jr. in December 1968, in Apollo 8.

Earthrise viewed from lunar orbit prior to Eagle landing
[Image credit: NASA]

The Soviet Lunar program included 20 successful missions to the Moon, including the first probe to impact the Moon, the first flyby, the first image of the farside of the Moon, the first soft landing, the first lunar orbiter, and the first circumlunar probe to return to Earth. There were 24 missions in the Luna series, and 5 in the Zond series.

The US also sent robotic missions to prepare for human exploration: the Rangers (1961–1965) were impact probes, the Lunar Orbiters (1966–1967) mapped the surface to find landing sites, and the Surveyors (1966–1968) were soft landers.

Zomd-5 launch

The first earthlings to reach the Moon were not Apollo astronauts. Launched in September 1968, the Soviet Zond-5 became the second ship to travel to and circle the Moon, and the first to return safely to Earth. It carried a payload of living things: fruit fly eggs, mealworms, seeds of wheat, barley, pea, pine, carrots and tomatoes, tradescantia plants, and some microorganisms. But the stars of the Zond-5 mission were a pair of steppe tortoises, which flew around the Moon and made it safely back to Earth, becoming the first vertebrates to reach the Moon.

[They have been referred to as turtlenauts, which isn’t strictly correct, but tortoisenaut doesn’t ripple off the tongue in the same way.]
Zond-5 splashdown

There is a scientific paper dated 1972 which presented Some Results of Experiments with Plant Objects Exposed Aboard the Zond-5 Probe, but I don’t have access to it. The abstract says:

“The biological effect of space flight factors, particularly radiation, on the Earth–Moon route was investigated using seeds of some higher plants — winter and spring wheat, barley, bean, pine, pea — Allium cepa bulbs and plant Tradescantia paludosa.

Analysis showed a significant amount of chromosome rearrangement in some cells, with the highest level of rearrangement occurring in the pine seedlings. The authors also note the “stimulatory (seeds of wheat, pea, etc.) and inhibitory (tomato seeds) effects of space flight factors on the germination and growth of the seeds tested.”

Zond-5 commemorative stamp, issued in 1969

At the time, the global press heralded the turtlenauts as evidence that the Soviets were winning the space race, but the engineers at NASA knew that the Soyuz spacecraft couldn’t support human life, and wasn’t a threat to Apollo. The irony of that, of course, is that since the Shuttle program ended (in July 2011), NASA has been paying Russia for rides to the International Space Station on board Soyuz capsules, as they were the only spacecraft capable of carrying humans into space at all. In March this year, SpaceX launched a test flight of their Dragon crewed capsule to the ISS, and the mission ended with a successful splashdown. However, the Crew Demo-1 capsule was destroyed during a test in April, so NASA will have to wait a bit longer for their commercial crew flights.